If Fifa president Gianni Infantino gets his way, this summer’s World Cup in Russia could be the last of its kind before a major revamp of club and international football.
Sepp Blatter’s successor convened an emergency Fifa Council meeting today to discuss a $25bn offer that the governing body has received from an investment group to set up two new major football tournaments.
The proposal is for Fifa to launch a new quadrennial 24-team Club World Cup and a new Nations League for international teams.
Both tournaments, along with a separate Fifa plan to expand the World Cup to 48 teams as soon as the 2022 editions, would radically change the footballing landscape.
What would the new tournaments look like?
The Club World Cup is currently held every December between that year’s six continental champions and the host country’s top club. European teams tend to dominate, despite their fanbases holding the tournament in little regard and their domestic TV audiences taking little interest.
Under the proposals, the tournament would be remodelled into a 24-club summer bonanza — featuring 12 clubs from Europe, five from South America and two each from other confederations — and would be held only once every four years.
The first edition is slated for 2021 and would include all Champions League winners and runners-up and Europa League winners from 2018-21, meaning Liverpool and Arsenal could feature.
The Nations League, meanwhile, is billed as offering international teams more of an opportunity for meaningful encounters in between major tournaments. According to leaked details, teams within the same regional confederations would be divided into groups, play each other throughout a season and then the best teams from each group would progress into a knock-out round the following year.
Both proposals are separate from a 48-team World Cup. Fifa is planning on expanding its flagship competition for the 2026 edition but could enact the change four years earlier, depending on a vote at next month’s Fifa Congress.
Where is the money coming from?
The mystery consortium behind the ambitious plans have yet to make themselves publicly known. It has been reported that Japanese conglomerate SoftBank is a prominent player but accounts of where other investors come from are conflicting.
Those behind the proposal are thought be offering a minimum $3bn for each of four proposed Club World Cups, $1bn for the inaugural Nations League and $4bn for three after that, adding up to a $25bn package.
Fifa would retain control over the tournaments and hold a 51 per cent stake in a new company set up alongside the consortium for the two tournaments.
Why is this happening now?
“Fifa currently faces a two-fold challenge,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University.
“Firstly, that its cash cow tournament – the World Cup – currently only takes place every four years; and secondly, many of its other competitions are largely anonymous and commercially underdeveloped. This inevitably causes some difficulty for the governing body, especially in managing cash-flow over each four-year cycle.
“At the same time, Fifa is operating in both an increasingly competitive environment and in a world shifting eastwards. In order for its competitions to remain robust and relevant, whilst at the same time reflecting global economic and geopolitical trends, the need for product development has become imperative.
“By reportedly working with investors from Asia and the Middle East, Fifa appears to be on the cusp of a major cash injection that will enable it to engage with some increasingly lucrative new market places. This will bring some certainty and stability to the organisation’s finances.
“At the same time, a revamped, rebranded and relaunched Club World Cup creates an opportunity to manage the competition on a more strategic, commercial basis. A more visible, credible tournament in itself would be a more compelling proposition for commercial partners.
“A larger tournament in which more games are played would provide more exposure for sponsors, more advertising slots, more ticket revenue generating opportunities, more occasions to sell merchandise – and on a global basis too. Fifa’s latest moves, spearheaded by Infantino, are therefore understandable, if somewhat belated.”
Who has responded?
Infantino was still rallying support from some Fifa officials ahead of today's meeting, where the governing body resolved to establish a working group to study the plans.
He faces opposition from those connected to European governing body Uefa, whose flagship Champions League tournament would have its position as the world’s leading club competition threatened by a new Club World Cup and whose more advanced plans for its own Nations League undermined by Fifa’s.
Resistance from top teams over the workload extra games will place on their players is already evident. The European Club Association, which represents the continent’s biggest clubs, has only recently called for a less-congested fixture list and a more balanced international calendar.
Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore wrote to Infantino in his role as head of the World Leagues Forum and argued that the tournament would “bring only greater congestion and health concerns for clubs’ players” and that Fifa had not properly consulted stakeholders.
The president of European Professional Football Leagues, an umbrella group for Europe’s top domestic divisions, Lars-Christer Olsson, has expressed “serious reservations” about the Club World Cup and said that “it’s time people thought about the players, they need time to rest”.